Lenny Wilkens left an indelible mark on professional basketball as a player and coach during his five decades in the National Basketball Association (NBA). Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, but now a Seattleite through and through, Wilkens is regarded as one of the most cerebral playmakers in NBA history. A graceful, left-handed point guard, he was a two-time All-American at Providence College and then a nine-time NBA All-Star in 15 seasons as a player. He served as player and coach simultaneously for a time, beginning in 1969 with the Seattle SuperSonics, before retiring as a player in 1975, and in 1979 he coached the Sonics to their only NBA championship. Wilkens, the first NBA coach to record 1,000 victories, has been inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame three times – as a player, head coach, and assistant coach of the 1992 U.S. Olympic "Dream Team."
Born in Brooklyn
Leonard Randolph Wilkens Jr. was born on October 28, 1937, in Brooklyn, New York to an African American father, Leonard Wilkens Sr., and an Irish American mother, Henrietta Wilkens. In 1943, when Lenny was just 5, his father died due to complications from a bleeding ulcer, leaving Henrietta to raise five kids by herself. An aunt approached Lenny, the oldest boy, at his father’s wake and told him, "We’ll, you’re going to be the man of the family now" (Wilkens and Pluto, 14). Her words stuck with him, and young Lenny had to grow up quickly while not fully understanding the profound impact of his father’s death.
Being responsible for helping his mother provide for the family was something Lenny took very seriously; he began working odd jobs around the neighborhood at the age of 9. Still, he found time to play sports while idolizing Jackie Robinson, the Brooklyn Dodgers great who broke baseball's color barrier in 1947. Wilkens himself experienced poverty and racism while coming of age in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, though Henrietta's devout Roman Catholic faith, something she instilled in her children, helped the family through challenging times. They attended Holy Rosary Catholic Church, where Lenny met Father Thomas Mannion, a young priest who would become a mentor, father figure, and role model. Mannion ran the youth basketball team at the church for the local Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) leagues and coached Wilkens on the fundamentals of the game. "You’re small. You’re going to be a guard, so you need to be able to handle the ball, to dribble the ball with both hands," Mannion told him, setting up 10 chairs on the court for Wilkens to practice ball-handling (Wilken and Pluto, 34). After dribbling came lay-up lines and jump shots.
Mastering the fundaments paid off when Wilkens made the freshman team at Boys High School, though Lenny didn't think he was good enough and didn't even turn out for the next two years. In the meantime, he continued to play in CYO leagues while improving his game. Close friend Tommy Davis, a future Major League Baseball star and member of the 1969 Seattle Pilots, suggested that Wilkens try out for the varsity team during their senior year. With a final nudge from Father Mannion, he went out, made the team, and, now a well-rounded player, averaged close to 20 points per game.
On to Providence
Just as his basketball career began to take flight, Wilkens was grounded when he graduated from high school a semester early, ending his senior season in January. He missed out on the city tournament and the resulting recruiting publicity it might bring, so to get him noticed, Father Mannion wrote a letter to the athletic director at Providence College in Rhode Island, recommending Wilkens for a basketball scholarship. The letter was forwarded to head coach Joe Mullaney, who invited Wilkens to an open tryout. But after a disappointing showing, Wilkens left the gym convinced he would not hear back from Providence. He continued to play in tournaments around New York, unknowingly redeeming himself at a Flushing YMCA Tournament, where he led his team to the championship and scored 32 points in the title game. Fortuitously in attendance was Joe Mullaney’s father. Impressed, he sent newspaper clippings from the game with a note to his son, remarking that this could not be the same player Father Mannion told him about. Within a few days, Wilkens had received a full basketball scholarship to Providence.
He soon made a name for himself as a student and an athlete – he was a star on the court and a fixture on the dean’s list. In his first season, he led the Providence freshman team to a 23-0 record and an easy victory over the Friars varsity squad. Wilkens led Providence in scoring in his second year and was the only sophomore to make the Eastern Conference Athletic Conference All-Conference team. He played his finest basketball as an upperclassman, blossoming into an All-American. In his junior year, he led Providence to the prestigious 1959 National Invitation Tournament (NIT) at Madison Square Garden, where he dazzled the crowd and captivated the New York media with his exploits, including a 30-point game against the University of St. Louis. As a senior, he averaged 14 points and led the Friars to a 24-5 record. Providence earned an invitation to the 1960 NIT and advanced to the final, where the Friars lost to Bradley University. Wilkens earned tournament MVP honors, averaging 25 points per game. He finished his college career as the second-highest scorer in school history and a two-time All-American. He then was invited to play in the East/West All-Star Game, a showcase for the nation's finest college seniors. In a game featuring future legends Oscar Robertson and Jerry West, Wilkens scored 18 points, including his team’s last eight, to earn co-MVP honors with West, who scored 23.
A Reluctant Pro
Wilkens had stamped himself as a future pro, but he was unsure about playing in the NBA. He was set on earning his degree from Providence, serving his ROTC military commitment, and becoming an economics professor. Nevertheless, on April 11, 1960, the Atlanta Hawks selected him in the first round of the NBA draft, the sixth overall pick. Wilkens also received a lucrative offer to play for the Technical Tape Company's team in the Industrial League in New York while working in public relations for the company. Shortly after the NBA draft, he attended his first NBA game, watching the Hawks take on the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals. The contest opened his eyes to playing in the league. Studying St. Louis’s guards, Wilkens was convinced that he was as good, if not better, than the players in the Hawks backcourt. He signed with St. Louis shortly thereafter.
Wilkens's adjustment to pro life was bumpy. In St. Louis, he experienced the true sting of Jim Crow discrimination for the first time in his life. His rookie-loathing veteran teammates gave him an icy reception, and his coaches offered little constructive feedback. Adding to his state of anxiety, Wilkens received a call from Joe Mullaney about a rumor that the Hawks didn't want him. "They only had one or two minorities on the team," Wilkens recalled. "The Hawks team, they didn’t have a play for the guards (i.e., Black players) at all. I created one off of a play that we used to run for our power forward to get him a shot. One time, instead of handing off, I kept going and went right to the basket, and the guards started doing that. And the coach got upset" ("NBA 75 ...").
Yet despite the frustrating situation, Wilkens pushed into the starting lineup by the midway point of his rookie season and averaged 17 points through the final 30 games. The Hawks advanced all the way to the NBA Finals, where they were vanquished in five games by Bill Russell and the Celtics.
The Hawks won the NBA championship in 1958 and were one of the league's best teams during the 1960s. They were led by All-Stars and future Hall of Fame forwards Bob Pettit and Cliff Hagan, the focal points of the offense. To defend against the duo, opposing guards often sagged back into the key to deny Pettit and Hagan the ball. Wilkens’s scoring ability immediately opened things up; afforded open space, Wilkens made a high percentage of his mid-range jump shots, and when teams realized they had to account for Wilkens, Pettit and Hagan were given more room to dominate inside.
Opposing guards had their hands full with the left-handed Wilkens. Play him too close and Wilkens would use his quickness to beat defenders into the lane, where he wreaked havoc. When Wilkens went left, he was nearly unstoppable. Seemingly always under control, he could gracefully glide to the basket and finish with finesse or make a well-timed pass to an open teammate. The crafty Wilkens possessed an array of hook shots and floaters to get the ball over taller players and into the hoop. On defense he was a menace, known for his quick hands and ability to create turnovers. Though he was unimposing at 6 feet 1 and 180 pounds, he began making an enormous impact on the game as he matured as a pro.
In his second season, Wilkens was limited to 20 games because of his military commitment. The Hawks faltered to a 29-51 record, missing the playoffs for the only time in Wilkens's eight years in St. Louis.
In 1962, Lenny married Marilyn Reed, and the couple began a 60-year-strong marriage that continues to this day. The Wilkenses would have three children: Leesha, Jamee, and Randy.
Wilkens returned to the NBA full-time in the 1962-1963 season, made his first appearance in the NBA All-Star Game, and helped the Hawks get back to the postseason. From 1963 forward, he guided the Hawks to six consecutive playoff appearances. He was a five-time All-Star in those six seasons and posted his finest campaign in 1967-1968, averaging 20 points and 8.3 assists per game and finishing second behind Wilt Chamberlain for the NBA Most Valuable Player Award. Despite his fine play, however, internal turmoil and a contract dispute with the front office consumed the franchise as it prepared to relocate from St. Louis to Atlanta for the 1968-1969 season. On October 12, 1968, the Hawks traded Wilkens to the Seattle SuperSonics for high-scoring guard Walt Hazzard. In Wilkens's words, the move was "one of the best things that ever happened to me" (Wilkens and Pluto, 121)
Player-Coach in Seattle
Wilkens was an immediate hit in Seattle, helping the Sonics, who were coming off a dismal expansion season, to a 30-52 record by averaging 22.4 points and 8.2 assists per games. At some point during that first season, Sonics general manager Dick Vertlieb began gauging his star player’s interest in coaching the team. Wilkens rebuffed the idea, thinking that Vertlieb was crazy. He replied, "Lenny, when you play, it's like you’re coaching on the floor anyway. So why not just go ahead and be the coach?" (Wilkens and Pluto, 123). After thinking about the coaches he had played for in the NBA, Wilkens agreed that it made sense to give it a try. He met with Sonics owner Sam Schulman and agreed to a one-year deal to become the team's player-coach on August 5, 1969. At the introductory news conference, Vertlieb stated, "If anybody can make us a real ball club, I think Lenny can. I think everyone in the league respects Lenny. He has all the talents" ("Wilkens Named SuperSonic Coach"). Not knowing what to expect, Wilkens described his new dual role as a novelty.
The Wilkens-led Sonics got better each season, and in his third year, the team achieved a 47-35 record. He continued to shine as a player, leading the league in total assists in both 1969-1970 and 1971-1972. He received the MVP award at the 1971 NBA All-Star Game. But the strain of playing and coaching at a high level started to set in. While Wilkens was open to stepping down to become a full-time player, Bob Houbregs, who became Sonics GM on December 1, 1969, had other ideas. Houbregs hired Tom Nissalke to coach the team, and in one of the most infamous transactions in Seattle sports history, traded Wilkens to the Cleveland Cavaliers for guard Butch Beard on August 23, 1972.
An Unpopular Trade
Sonics fans were irate and vociferously let the front office know their disapproval. Ticket holders signed a petition vowing to never attend another game. Seattle Mayor Wes Uhlman even got involved, publicly criticizing the move. The situation was so ugly that Nissalke received death threats. Sharing their displeasure was Wilkens, who was blindsided and angry over how the trade played out. He found out about the move through his wife, Marilyn, while playing golf. Already entrenched in the city, he did not want to leave Seattle. "I can’t see myself going to Cleveland. We’ve made some roots here, the kids go to school here, and we like it here. I just can't chuck that out the window" ("Lenny’s Country ...").
Cleveland was considered the black hole of the NBA; entering their third season in the league, the Cavs had averaged only 19 wins in their first two campaigns. Wilkens initially refused to join them but was motivated by the idea of turning things around for the struggling franchise, and with Wilkens orchestrating the attack, the Cavs immediately improved their quality of play. The offense was noticeably sharper, and Wilkens bailed them out with his uncanny playmaking ability. On November 12, 1972, he showed the Sonics what they missed in his bittersweet homecoming to Seattle. A sellout crowd of 13,174 fans packed the Seattle Center Coliseum to root for Wilkens and against the home team. The crowd jeered Nissalke mercilessly and cheered every time Wilkens touched the ball. A sign that read ‘THIS IS LENNY'S COUNTRY’ was held high as Wilkens and the Cavs beat the Sonics 113-107. Wilkens finished with 22 points, 9 assists, and 9 rebounds.
He went on to represent the Cavaliers in the 1973 NBA All-Star, averaging 20.5 points and 8.4 assists during the season while burnishing his reputation as one of the game's best coaches. "I learned more from Lenny than I learned from anybody I ever played with," said former Cleveland star Austin Carr. "Because of my injuries and I was losing a step, I was able to play another eight years in the league because of him — because he showed me how to play the game" ("NBA 75 ...").
On October 7, 1974, the Cavaliers sold Wilkens's rights to Portland, where he concluded his playing career with the Trail Blazers, once again serving in the role of player-coach, and retired after the 1974-1975 season. In 15 years as a player, Wilkens scored 17,772 points and handed out 7,211 assists. He ranks among the all-time leaders in assists, free throws made, games played, and minutes played. In his first year post-retirement, he coached Portland full-time in 1975-1976, guiding an injury plagued team led by Bill Walton to a 37-45 record. Portland decided to replaced Wilkens in June 1976 with Jack Ramsay, who led the Trail Blazers to the NBA championship the following season. Wilkens spent the next year as a broadcaster for CBS Sports, relieved to be out of the playing and coaching pressure cooker. His short-lived hiatus turned out to be a blessing, setting the stage for his triumphant return to Seattle.
The Sonics hired Wilkens again in May 1977, this times as director of player personnel. He was warmly received by the franchise and its fan base, which was counting on him to take the Sonics out of their malaise. As Steve Kelley would later write in The Seattle Times: "Wilkens reached the height of his popularity here in 1977-80. He had returned to Seattle, as player-personnel director, after finishing his playing career at Cleveland, then Portland, where he also served as player-coach. He helped engineer a trade with Denver that brought both center Marvin Webster and forward Paul Silas to the Sonics. He also helped sign free agent Gus Williams from Golden State and acquire former Cavalier and Trail Blazer teammate John Johnson from Houston" ("Lenny's Country ...").
Twenty-two games into the 1977-1978 season, the Sonics had stumbled to a 5-17 record under coach Bob Hopkins, and more change was needed. Hopkins was fired, and Wilkens returned to the head coaching role. He immediately implemented changes to the system and the starting lineup. Stressing quickness and relentless defense that sparked a running, guard-oriented attack, Wilkens moved defensive mavens Dennis "D. J." Johnson and Gus Williams into the starting lineup to ignite the fast break. Playing the novel "point forward" position was John "J. J." Johnson, whose passing ability set up half-court sets when the fast break was grounded. Locking down the interior with rebounding and shot-blocking was Marvin Webster, a 7-footer. Also joining the starting lineup was Jack Sikma, a unique big man with a lethal step-back jump shot and exquisite footwork in the post. The reserves were led by sixth man and fan favorite "Downtown" Fred Brown, who provided instant offense with his long-range shooting. Also on the bench was Paul Silas, who brought toughness and veteran leadership.
With these pieces in place, the Sonics had become a well-balanced and team-oriented ballclub, and after Wilkens took over, they went on a tear, finishing 42-18 the rest of the season to cap a remarkable turnaround. They advanced all the way to the NBA Finals before falling in seven games to the Washington Bullets led by Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld.
Determined after their loss to the Bullets, Wilkens and the Sonics entered the 1978-1979 season extremely confident in their championship potential. The team retooled and added Lonnie Shelton, a bear of a man, to replace Webster, and embarked on a spectacular season that included a 52-30 record and a return trip to the NBA Finals. This time the Sonics prevailed, defeating the Bullets in five games for the first and only title in franchise history. Wilkens had utilized a team-oriented philosophy to craft a championship club out of a band of talented cast-offs. He recalled in 1994, "I had heard general managers and other people say it was the worst team ever. And when I turned them around, all of a sudden everyone said, 'Well, we all knew they had the talent'" (Legends Profile: Lenny Wilkens).
The championship run gave birth to "Sonic Fever," a craze that was evident when 20,000 fans swamped Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to welcome their team home from the NBA Finals. On June 4, 1979, more than 300,000 people (in a city of 493,000 residents) funneled into downtown Seattle to celebrate as the Sonics paraded the Larry O’Brien trophy through the city, commemorating Seattle's first professional sports championship since the Seattle Metropolitans won the 1917 Stanley Cup.
Climbing the Ladder
Wilkens discovered the challenges of championship fallout after the champagne bubbles went flat. Despite guiding the Sonics to the playoffs in six of eight years, he was unable to lead them back to the NBA Finals. The team's core began to unravel, and the Sonics bottomed out in 1984-1985 when they finished 31-51. Wilkens relinquished coaching duties at the end of the season and became the team’s vice president and general manager. However, he yearned for the opportunity to return to the bench. He tried to dismiss the feeling, but being in the huddle was his calling. Wilkens was lured back to the Cleveland Cavaliers to take over their head coaching job for the 1986-1987 season.
With Wilkens on the bench, the Cavaliers' outlook turned optimistic with a promising crop of new players that included Brad Daugherty, Ron Harper, John "Hot Rod" Williams, and Mark Price. Over the next seven seasons, Wilkens reconstructed the Cavs from bottom-dwellers into a perennial Eastern Conference contender and led them to three 50-win seasons, including a franchise-record 57 victories in 1988-1989 and 1991-1992. During the summer of 1992, Wilkens served as an assistant coach for the U.S. Olympic "Dream Team," regarded by many as the greatest basketball team ever assembled. Wilkens’s motivational skills helped set the tone for the intense practice that galvanized the players, and the Dream Team romped to the gold medal at the Summer Games in Barcelona.
His sustained excellence in Cleveland cemented Wilkens's legacy as one of the greatest NBA coaches of all time. He began the 1992-1993 season ranked No. 5 on the all-time victory list and ended it in the No. 2 spot with 869 wins, 69 behind legendary Celtics coach Red Auerbach. But despite going 54-28 during the regular season, the Cavs were eliminated from the playoffs by the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls for the fourth time in six years. Wilkens did some soul searching, while not losing sight of the fact that the Bulls had Jordan and the Cavaliers did not. Nevertheless, Wilkens felt that the Cavs players needed a new voice in the locker room; he resigned from his post after the playoffs.
Record Breaking Heights
There was no shortage of suitors for Wilkens’ services during the 1993 offseason, and in June, he signed with the Atlanta Hawks. Imparting his typically efficient, fundamentally sound, and team-oriented strategy, Wilkens led the Hawks to new heights. In his first year, Atlanta surged from a 43-39 record the previous season to 57-25, matching the best record in franchise history. The Hawks won the Central Division and Wilkens was named the NBA's Coach of the Year.
On January 6, 1995, Wilkens and the Hawks defeated the Washington Bullets 112-90 to make Wilkens the winningest coach in NBA history with his 939th victory. He paid homage to the cigar-chomping Auerbach by lighting a stogie in his honor. When asked which of his accomplishments was the most significant, Wilkens replied, "Breaking the coach's record is (bigger). There are a lot of us who have won championships. But there is only one guy in first place. So that is much more meaningful. Me and many of the other coaches thought that his record would last forever. But I guess you never say never" ("At Last, Wilkens Can Celebrate ...").
Wilkens coached the Hawks for five more seasons, and in 1996 he served as head coach of the gold-medal-winning U.S. Olympic Team, dubbed by some as Dream Team II.
Late Career and Return to Seattle
After a tumultuous and disappointing 1999-2000 season, Wilkens resigned from the Hawks in hopes of a fresh start with a new franchise. The Toronto Raptors, coming off of their first playoff appearance, gave him that opportunity. The chance to coach superstar Vince Carter was enticing. Wilkens spent four seasons with the Raptors (2000-2004), taking Toronto on an Eastern Conference semifinals run in his first season. After that, he was hired by the New York Knicks as a mid-season replacement in 2004 and went 40-41 in less than a year on the job before stepping down in January 2005.
Wilkens finished his coaching career with a record of 1,332-1,155 in 32 seasons with Seattle, Portland, Cleveland, Atlanta, Toronto, and New York. The Naismith Hall of Fame inducted him in as a player in 1989 and as a coach in 1998, and he also is honored for the gold medal he won as an assistant with the Dream Team in 1992.
The Sonics brought Wilkens back to Seattle in 2006 as vice chairman of their new ownership group led by Clay Bennett. His return was welcomed by many anguished fans who were uncertain about their team's future. Wilkens served as a diplomat to lobby for a publicly financed arena that was needed to save the team from relocating. He resigned from the organization in July 2007. "I don’t like Clay," he told Seattle Magazine in 2023. "When he went down to Olympia and demanded they build a building or else he was going to leave, I went to Clay and said I was resigning. I didn’t want to be part of him moving the team. I knew his connections were in Oklahoma. He wasn’t paying any attention to try and make it here" ("The Pursuit of Nobility ...").
Wilkens went on to serve as a basketball analyst for Fox Sports and other media outlets. He still resides in the Pacific Northwest, his home for more than 50 years. He continues his philanthropy through the Lenny Wilkens Foundation, which works to provide access and healthcare to children. The foundation has donated more than $8 million to the Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic since 1971. He had a street, Lenny Wilkens Way, named after him near Climate Pledge Arena in 2021 and was honored with Lenny Wilkens Day at Seattle Center.